Getting turned back due to visa bungles is common - it happened to me

Novak Djokovic isn't the first person to have been turned back at an immigration desk. In fact it's quite common.

In 2004, Australian music icon Molly Meldrum was handcuffed and detained for 12 hours at Los Angeles Airport, then deported on the next plane home after he ticked the wrong box on his visa waiver form.

In 2017, children's book author Mem Fox said she felt like she'd been "physically assaulted" by US border control personnel after being detained and questioned about her visa, despite travelling to America 116 times previously without incident. And later that same year, a Victorian MP was denied entry to the US while on official parliamentary business. I know how they feel.

More accurately, it was my wife who was affected most by a bureaucratic oversight. In August 2001, Michelle and I were nine-tenths of the way to Kuwait, where she was about to start a 12-month teaching contract at an international school, when things went awry. We'd just spent two days exploring Bahrain, the small island nation in the Persian Gulf, and were ready to board our onward flight when a Gulf Air official barred Michelle from progressing past the check-in counter.

"We can't allow you on the flight without a valid visa," he said.

"It is valid," she replied, stabbing her finger at the piece of paper that had been sent to Australia by her employer, and which now lay on the counter in front of her.

"No, it's not. Your husband's visa is fine because it is a tourist visa, but your work visa needs to be stamped by the Kuwait Embassy in your country. This is not stamped."

"But there is no embassy in Australia," Michelle argued.

"I'm sorry. They are not our rules. They are the rules of the Kuwait Immigration Department. If we let you on the plane they will give you a 24-hour tourist visa, after which you will be forced to exit the country at your own expense."

Advertisement

While Michelle and I tried to figure out what to do, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to face a spectacled Western woman.

"He's right," she said, in an accent blending South London cockney with North Queensland drawl. "I've been stuck here for the past three days because my visa wasn't stamped when I flew to Kuwait. They sent me back here to get it done."

Realising that it might mean we'd have to stay in Bahrain until we'd sorted out Michelle's visa, we both groaned our displeasure. We'd been underwhelmed by what we'd seen, and it was almost 50 degrees outside.

I asked the airline official if he was certain he wasn't mistaken. He called over a higher ranking representative for confirmation.

"One hundred per cent, you will not be allowed into Kuwait," he said.

We were snookered.

With our options severely limited, we chose to postpone our flights for a day in the hope we'd be able to rectify Michelle's visa status the next morning. Perhaps then we could fly to Kuwait together in a day's time. But we'd already begun to suspect that things operated differently here.

The Kuwait Embassy in Bahrain had closed earlier that day – a Wednesday. It wouldn't reopen until after the Thursday-Friday weekend. Since Michelle was due to start work on the Sunday morning, she would have to get her visa stamped on the Saturday morning then fly out to Kuwait immediately. Otherwise, she'd miss her first day of work.

Together, we made the decision to stay in Bahrain that Wednesday night and I'd fly to Kuwait the next day. At least then I could move into our apartment and work on getting our new lives organised over the weekend. Meanwhile, we'd pray that Michelle would be able to persuade an embassy official in Bahrain to process her visa on the Saturday morning so she could fly to Kuwait that afternoon.

After phone calls to the Kuwait Embassy in Bahrain and to Michelle's employer in Kuwait went unanswered, we eventually discovered – via a Kuwait Airways clerk – that immigration officials in Kuwait couldn't rubberstamp Michelle's work visa until she had undergone a medical check for tuberculosis and HIV. This process applied to all new immigrants before they could enter Kuwait, similar to tennis players needing to show their COVID vaccination status before arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open. It was valuable information that Michelle's employers had neglected to pass on.

Late that Saturday, I phoned Michelle and was relieved to find out her visa had been approved, and that she'd be on Gulf Air flight to Kuwait that evening. After two days of fending off Saudi men who had driven across the King Fahd Causeway to sample all manner of vices that were prohibited in their homeland, she was itching to escape Bahrain.

It was after 11pm when Michelle entered our Kuwait apartment for the first time – three days later than originally scheduled, and just eight hours before her new job commenced.

After a similar amount of uncertainty, it looks like Djokovic will able to stay and do his job on the tennis court too.